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Building to $10 Million in EdTech: Panopto CTO Eric Burns (Part 1)

Posted on Sunday, Jun 15th 2014

One of the issues we’ve discussed is the slow-growth nature of the EdTech industry. This interview explores the question in depth, and shows how Panopto is mitigating the issue through sector diversification.

Sramana Mitra: Eric, let’s start at the beginning of your story. Tell us where you were born and raised, and in what kind of circumstances.

Eric Burns: I was born in Nashville, Tennessee. My father, at that time, was in a seminary to be an Episcopal priest. He finished seminary and we moved to Knoxville, Tennessee when I was very young. My dad opened his parish there. My mom was a psychologist.

I lived in Knoxville until I was nine, then moved to Kentucky and went to public school. We got our first computer – a Commodore 64 – when I was six and I fell in love with it. I loved technology and that progressed as I grew up. In elementary school, my focus was video games and that gradually turned into all things technology, particularly Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Sramana Mitra: Where did you do your schooling?

Eric Burns: I went to Carnegie-Melon University. That was my first exposure to the infinite world of top-tier computer science research.

Sramana Mitra: You did a degree in Computer Science?

Eric Burns: I initially started off with Electrical and Computer Engineering. It was basically Electrical Engineering with a focus on Computer Engineering and digital logic. I decided, after about two years in that, that wasn’t for me. There’s something about the nature and the pace of hardware that didn’t have the immediacy that I was looking for. I ended up picking up a Computer Science minor. I was actually one class short for a Computer Science minor. I got a degree in Information Systems.

On one hand, I wish I had gotten a Computer Science degree but I’m happy that I had a survey of exposure of everything from the silicon level, the computer science deep algorithms, and the higher level concepts like database system design and where those begin to map to business needs.

Sramana Mitra: What year did you come out of college?

Eric Burns: I graduated in 2000. I had been very fortunate. I needed a summer job. I’ve worked in a lab that was operated by Raj Reddy who was, at that time, the Dean of the Computer Science. You may be familiar with Raj.

Sramana Mitra: Yes, I know Raj.

Eric Burns: Raj was my patron at CMU. I had an early interaction with him and he said, “I’ve got this project called Universal Library Project. Would you like to give it a shot?” He just resourced it with graduate students and whoever was around. That was back in 1998. It was very early. It was the summer after my sophomore year of college. Over the next two years, I found that the project was a great fit for me. I got to work on all sorts of interesting things. When I graduated in 2000, Raj offered me a job as full-time research programmer. I was there, as an undergraduate, from 1996 to 2000. Then, from 2000 to 2005, I worked as a research programmer.

Sramana Mitra: When you were coming out of school, what was going on around and what did you decide to do?

Eric Burns: It was really an interesting climate because 2000 was right on the verge of the original dotcom bubble burst. I had a very profound fork in the road. On one hand, I had this opportunity to stay with people who I had built good relationships with and work on a project that I really like. The offer I got from Raj was more or less, “Here is a windowless room of your own with all of the donated computer equipment you can eat. Go ahead and build some cool stuff.” That’s a very unusual job. As you might imagine, it’s not a job that necessarily pays industry salary because people pursue it for the chance to do interesting things.

On the other hand, other people who were graduating with me were going to companies like PeopleSoft and Trilogy. These were the big recruiting forces. Other guys were getting $100,000 salaries right out of college, which is no longer particularly noteworthy. I looked at this and said, “I’m not sure I want to go into that world. I think it might be good for me to stay here and work on this.” I ended up doing that. I’m glad that I went in that path because within a year, things had really started to fall apart. We know how a lot of the high-flyer companies’ stories ended. That was how I made the call.

Sramana Mitra: So what happens next?

Eric Burns: Carnegie-Melon is a very unique place. From the outside, it looks like a place where you have all the resources you need and you have all kinds of grant money coming in. As it turns out, it’s actually a very scrappy place where everyone is overstretched. You’re always trying to hustle to figure out where your next infusion of grant money is going to come from. As a result, everybody beyond lower-level individual contributor roles are taking on multiple projects – in some cases, huge projects. It was mind-blowing how many different things Raj was involved in. He’s an extreme example. I also worked with a guy who did everything from intellectual property law to electronic voting systems and also Universal Library Project.

With my job, 50% of your time goes into building the Universal Library. It was a digital library – scanning to delivery. The project was nothing short of digitizing the world’s information. Even in 2002, there was no Amazon search inside the book. There was no Google print. It was pretty radical that we built this scanning center pipeline in China and India where US libraries would ship books, scan them, and bring them back. In any case, there’s not a lot of money in that. It’s an altruistic thing. That was half of my time.

This segment is part 1 in the series : Building to $10 Million in EdTech: Panopto CTO Eric Burns
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